To create "Identity," writer Michael Cooney drew heavily from an iconic film and a legendary mystery novel: "Psycho" and "And Then There Were None." It's not exactly identity theft, but when you see the generic "Motel" sign on a dark and stormy night in Nowhere, Nevada, you can't help but think of the Bates Motel from Hitchcock's thriller. And Cooney even makes reference to "Ten Little Indians," the movie version of Agatha Christie's famous mystery.
I'll say up-front that I have mixed feelings about this film. A part of me admires it and felt in its grip the whole time, and part of me felt duped and manipulated by the end. Endings are tricky things, though. There has to be a sense of inevitability about them, but also surprise. That's not easy to do, and it's the ending of "Identity" (which, of course, is the basic premise) that has me doing a bit of critical fence-sitting.
Even as I'm torn, I still have to say that "Identity" is probably the best adaptation of Christie's novel that I've seen since the 1945 film, "And Then There Were None." It's far better than any of the soggy remakes that were titled "Ten Little Indians."
The location always changes. Originally Christie had ten people invited to Indian Island, near Devon. The first remake shifted the setting to an alpine village, with additional versions transporting ten victims-to-be to Iran and Africa. So why not Noplace, Nevada? In the original 1939 novel, the ten saw a framed macabre nursery rhyme in the dining room:
"Ten little Indians went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indians sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight."
And so on, until the ditty ends with the title of the novel. Here, it's a voiceover narration with another apparent children's rhyme:
"As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish he'd go away."
Director James Mangold ("Walk the Line") plays Columbo here, giving us some of the early incidents out-of-sequence and backtracking to show us how certain things came to pass. Two basic narratives are intercut: one involves characters who find their way to an isolated motel on a night when a storm has knocked all communication out and flooded the roads so that they are, in effect, on an island; the other gives us a defense team's maneuvering to get their client one last review on the night before he's to be executed, and this thread includes shots of newspaper headlines that tell about a boy who was left abandoned at a motel, clips that tell about a massacre at a motel years later, and the questioning of the accused by a doctor (Alfred Molina).
By shooting in reverse and partially out of sequence, the filmmakers shift the emphasis from whether someone will be killed (after all, anyone who knows Christie's novel knows they're gonners) to how they'll be killed and who the killer is. Questions are also raised. Is the motel we see in flashback, where we're going to watch how this all took place, or is it a third motel? We're not sure at first, and that's part of the skillful writing that throws buckets of red herrings at us. Throughout the course of the film we'll be convinced that one person is the culprit, then another, and another, until finally we're almost as ready as the survivors to just throw up our hands and say, "I give up."
On this dark and stormy night, we see a man burst through the motel door carrying a bloodied woman and crying that there's been an accident. Then the narrative goes back to show us how George York (John C. McGinley), his wife Alice (Leila Kenzle) and son Timmy (Bret Loehr) ended up on the highway with car troubles, where Alice was then struck by a car driven by Ed Dakota (John Cusack), who's chauffering (and "bodyguarding") B-actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay). The motel is owned by a creepy sleezeball named Larry Washington (John Hawkes) who has a secret of his own. In films like this there always has to be a young couple, preferably newlyweds, but here they're a bickering pair (Clea Du Vall as Ginny and William Lee Short as Lou) who've married in Vegas on a drunken impulse. Then there's Paris Nevada (Amanda Peet), an apparent call girl who's known and reviled by the motel owner.
What sets things in motion is the arrival of one last car: a state vehicle driven by cop Sam Rhodes (Ray Liotta), who's transporting a mass murderer named Robert Maine (Jake Busey). Now, if you've been paying attention to the names, you know that there are a lot of people named for States. But there's another common denominator that's revealed much later, and it's a lulu. Throw in hints of the supernatural (nearby is an Indian burial ground--which is how Christie's Indians are incorporated), and you've got a pretty compelling puzzler of a film.
Though the ground is familiar, there are some nice touches that make it fun to watch. The actress tries to get a stronger signal on her cell phone, for example, and to walk out in the rain she just rips the plastic shower curtain off its hooks and drapes it over her like a poncho. When one character performs a rather amazing feat, another asks, "Where did you learn to do that?" The reply? "Pretty much where you're standing." Dialogue is so important in a thriller, and I'm happy to report that the script is a strong one. There are plenty of believable lines and interesting exchanges. Another example? One of the men says, "You got a name?" "Paris," she replies. "Never been," he says. "Well, you ain't goin' tonight." Zing.
You'd think that shooting an entire film on a clichéd dark and stormy night would be the kiss of death, but Mangold really manages to sustain the tension and atmosphere that makes a good thriller fun to watch. The ending, for me, was a bit too much of an O. Henry slap on the face, but I would guess that plenty of people will have no problem with it. You be the judge. And jury.
HD was made for films like this, the bulk of which was shot at night and in rain. There's plenty of detail and great contrast in this 1080p picture, presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.
You want subtitles? We got subtitles. Twenty-two of them: English, English SDH, French, Korean, Thai, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Turkish, and Hungarian. I know what you're thinking: "What, no Klingon?" In addition to the amazing number of subtitles there are a slough of audio options. The PCM 5.1 is available in English AND German, with additional options in English, French, and German Dolby Digital 5.1 and a track you don't see all that often, English DES (descriptive audio track for the visually impaired). There's plenty of ambient sound, with rain trickling down your rear-speaker drainpipes. Perfect for atmosphere! Solid sound.
Both a writer's and a director's commentary are worth a listen, though I, for one, resent having to sit through two separate full-length tracks. Can't these guys play nice and do one together? That complaint aside, each track is chock-full of information, anecdotes, and strategies. Would-be screenwriters will learn a lot from the writer's commentary track about pacing and structure. There are also five deleted scenes with or without commentary, and a story board comparison feature. The "on the set" featurette is a teaser, really, so the best features are really both commentaries.
It's been awhile since a murder-mystery thriller really held my attention, and for that reason alone "Identity" deserves a high mark. But I'm still not comfortable with the ending.